After a five year hiatus, the Bonham Theatre in Fairbury is once again showing films on the big screen.
The theatre, which first opened on Sept. 27, 1926, earned its title as the showcase of the area, being a state-of-the-art facility when constructed.
But time took its toll, and the building fell into disrepair over the years. It eventually closed in 2012 after the then-owner was unable to afford a required upgrade to digital projects.
Then a group of Fairbury residents determined to keep the Bonham sprang into action and launched a fundraiser.
“We had so many different fundraisers, work days, demolition and cleaning, and all that was done by volunteers,” said Brooke Schwab, president of the Bonham Theatre Project. “Once we got to skilled labor we had contractors hired who came in and did a lot of the work, but we had a lot of volunteer work done also.
“The largest chunks of the money came from grants. Deb Ebke was our treasurer at the time and she did an amazing job of writing grants that we got.”
The Bonham Theatre Project is a nonprofit group organized to restore the theater. It bought the building at auction in 2013 for less than $25,000 with aspirations of restoring it to its former glory. Doing so required around $800,000 in renovations.
Upgrading to digital projectors was a key part of that, though fire code and safety upgrades were the biggest portion of the project.
“Upgrading the projector to digital was why it closed,” Schwab said. “Unfortunately for us, that wasn’t the only issue with the building. Once he shut down, for us to reopen all those fire codes and handicap accessibility and all that wasn’t compliant. It was grandfathered in before, and we had to meet them.
“The sprinkler system was one of those big ticket items that you hope to never use. At first it was a major challenge, but I think we’ve successfully met all the requirements and still did it in an aesthetically pleasing way.”
Some of the needed upgrades included modifying emergency exits, additional HVAC safety measures and a handicap accessible exit from the main theatre. A second theatre used to be upstairs, but is longer in use.
Organizers hope to one way raise funds to reopen the second theatre.
Great care was also taken to restore the dome ceiling in the theatre, which was previously blocked from view by a suspended ceiling.
“My generation growing up, I never saw the dome,” Schwab said. “But back when the balcony was opened up people saw that. During the demolition you couldn’t see this until you had a flashlight, but the stenciling was so faded you couldn’t even see it. We had an artist come in and do a replica of the stenciling.”
Schwab added the theatre is something the community takes pride in, and will show films and host events for years to come.